When Dr. Mohammed Morsi, the president-elect of Egypt, spoke during the last year about his view of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli treaty of peace it was apparent that he was pulled in two opposing directions. On the one hand, when he would speak to Western leaders he would describe the need for Egypt to honor the agreements that it has signed. This was precisely what he told Senator John Kerry in December 2011, according to the Muslim Brotherhood’s summary of the meeting.
Yet on the other hand, Morsi also stated several months earlier that it was necessary to conduct a re-examination of the 1978 Camp David Agreement, which had served as the basis of the treaty. His party’s legal advisor expanded on this point suggesting that it was necessary to re-examine all the clauses of the agreement to determine whether its abrogation was mandated.
The General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Badie, who is expected to wield enormous influence behind the scenes in a Morsi government, called for having the Egyptian parliament conduct this re-examination. In his weekly message on December 23, 2010, Badie also gave the ideological context of the Muslim Brotherhood approach, by concluding that negotiations or reconciliation with Israel would be a “big mistake.” Morsi himself invoked during a speech in May the name of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, and the organization’s famous slogan: “The Quran is our constitution, jihad is our path, and death for the sake of Allah is our most lofty aspiration.”
Given this background, there is a duality in Morsi’s approach to the 1979 peace treaty that is emerging. This became clear in another interview that he gave a month ago on the Egyptian ONtv network. He reiterated, “We will respect the agreement — that is essential.” But then he immediately added a qualification to this statement: “But it is necessary to relate to the details. Both sides have to respect the agreement.” He then asked “where is the comprehensive peace for all the peoples of the region?” Morsi explained that there were two agreements, between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and the Palestinians, and he implied that since Israel had not kept its commitments to the Palestinian side, Egypt was not obligated to maintain the peace treaty.
Using this legal argument, Morsi was re-opening one of the key issues that had been already settled in past Israeli-Egyptian negotiations thirty-three years ago: Namely, was there any formal linkage between the bilateral agreement between Israeli and Egypt and the state of relations between Israel and other Arab parties, especially the Palestinians? The Treaty of Peace was absolutely clear on the subject, rejecting the idea of linkage. Thus Article VI (2) plainly states: “The Parties undertake to fulfill in good faith their obligations under this Treaty, without regard to action or inaction of any other party and independently of any instrument external to this Treaty.” The Egyptian Foreign Ministry knows well that this is what the Treaty of Peace states, but it is not clear the extent to which the international community is still aware of these subtle details.
How should Israel behave should the new Egyptian government make this argument that the legal status of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty is linked to the pace of negotiations with the Palestinians in the months ahead? Washington is the most important player in this regard. Not only did President Carter sign the Treaty of Peace in the name of the US, but there is also a US-Israel Memorandum of Agreement according to which Washington undertook to take “appropriate measures to promote full observance of the Treaty of Peace.” What will the U.S. do if Morsi suggests to put the future status of the peace agreement with Israel before the Egyptian public in a national referendum? Unfortunately, when asked about this idea in a CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour in May, Morsi did not rule this option out.
One of the questions that needs to be answered is whether the Muslim Brotherhood feels that it has wider latitude with Israel after Morsi’s victory. Last week, the Egyptian daily al-Ahram reported that some secular parties in Egypt expressed their anger at the Obama administration for what they perceived was its decision to give its blessing to the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory. Commentators in the Jordanian and Palestinian press made the same observation.
Under such conditions, the Egyptians could miscalculate the American position, thinking that their desire to build relations with the new Egyptian leadership would make it more prone to side with Cairo in political disputes with Jerusalem. It is imperative that the U.S. clarify its strong opposition to any attempt to erode the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace and obtain and accurate picture of Morsi’s diplomatic plans.
Morsi and his new government will have to strike a balance between their strong ideological opposition to Israel and the constraints they face from the international community and especially the U.S. It has already been said that Morsi will have to worry about providing food for tens of millions of Egyptians every day — a factor that should moderate the behavior of a future Egyptian regime.
There will be a period in which the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood will test their freedom of maneuver. Israel is already making clear that it views the 1979 treaty as both the cornerstone of any future peace process and one of the key components of regional stability. It can only be hoped that Egypt will continue to reach the same conclusion as well.
This post first appeared in Israel Hayom.